Photo: Eric Stone
Photo: Eric Stone
Photo: Eric Stone
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Flight of the Hornbill
grave imports
living room of the dead
wrong side of the wall
short stories



Flight of the Hornbill The rich odor of baby powder and mineral oil wraps around me like a favorite old blanket. A faint note of sharp, sweet incense tickles me as I glide down the corridor. A large, thick Korean woman firmly holds my hand and pulls me along. From the curtained cubicles we're passing comes a thwop, thwop, thwop sound of gentle fists on flesh and the sweet music of grunts and groans.

I heard somewhere that everyone in Korea is named Kim, except for a few Parks. I hope Kim'll be gentle. I've had enough pain.

She shows me to an empty cubicle with a narrow massage table and a chair, tells me to take off my clothes and indicates that she'll be back. I don't know how naked she wants me, so I leave my shorts on. The room is spare, dimly lit, decorated with last year's, 1995 Mitsubishi Forestry Products calendar and a framed picture of some mountains in Korea. There's a small cupboard on top of which are a bottle of mineral oil, a pink plastic container of talc, a jar of skin moisturizer and a gaudy floral print box of tissues. Country western music tinkles into the room from a small crackly speaker high up on the wall. Tammy Wynette warbles Stand By Your Man. An overhead fan churns the air making a light pfft, pfft, pfft.

Kim comes back with an armload of towels. She looks me up and down and smiles. She plucks at my shorts. "Take off." She motions for me to lie on a towel on the table. The towel gives off the scent of fresh warm oatmeal. It must be the laundry soap they use. I lie down and let my muscles go as slack as they can.

My face fits snug into the hole at the end of the table. It's bigger than the holes usually are; my head is trapped deep into it. But it's strangely comforting. I roll my eyes in their sockets and I can see the bottom of two table legs, a discarded tissue that looks like it might have been used to wipe off lipstick and the green-flecked linoleum floor. I can hear the muffled country western music, the thwop, thwop, thwop and the pfft, pfft, pfft and occasional crackles of Korean chatter from the other rooms. I'm lulled and dozy. Kim says, "Oil or powder?" I go for the oil.

It's cold and I tense briefly when she squirts it on my back. As she begins rubbing it in, it warms, I relax and drift away.

After a while Kim climbs onto my upper thighs, squatting over me on the table and putting considerable weight into kneading my muscles. I'm thinking of telling her to ease up, but as the heat from the friction of her hands seeps into me, I settle into it and add my own voice to the soft chorus of content.

She works her body down my legs and her hands down my back, occasionally pausing to squirt a little more oil. She digs her fingers into my butt, grinding it in slow deep circles into the table.

Her strong fingers and palms mash down the back of my thighs, onto the back of my knees, calves and finally down to my feet where her knuckles on my soles connect directly to other parts of my body. She takes hold of my toes, one by one and cracks them, like you would crack your knuckles, with a swift motion.

Kim moves back up my body and squirts more oil on my legs and butt. Her fingers trail lightly up to the bottom of my ass. She brushes me there and gently snakes a greasy hand up underneath me.

She bends over, her lips headed for my right ear to ask in a whisper if I want anything else. I lift my face slightly from the hole in the table and catch a strong whiff of garlic and pickled cabbage on her breath. But with her hand on me I don't care. To anyone else watching, and probably to Kim, the moment must play like farce. But to me, in the state I'm growing into, it's ripe with intimacy and anticipation.

Three loud, sharp explosions snap me out of it. There's a thud, like a hammer hitting a piece of meat. Kim gasps, and before I can move, falls with all her weight onto me, pressing my head uncomfortably deep into the small hole in the massage table.

My eyes open wide and bounce wildly around the limited field of vision. One of Kim's hands is dangling off the table to the left, it's speckled with blood.

I try pushing my head back out of the hole and my body off the table, but my head is stuck. My hands can't find leverage anywhere. Her dead weight holds me in place.

It sounds like a war's breaking loose in the hallway. The machine guns don't make a noise like "chatter" at all. They're too loud, too harsh, more like the screaming of enraged pre-schoolers than the pitter-patter of conversation. There's shouting but I can't make out any words. There's the splatter of bare feet on linoleum running in all directions.

A boom erupts just outside my cubicle. It claps my ears and deafens me. A body falls into my vision, the shoulder and upper arm tangled into the curtain that closed off the doorway. Rolling my eyes up as far as they'll go, I can just make out a gun, still grasped by an unmoving hand. Part of the arm is barely in reach of my right hand. I tug on the sleeve, trying to get the gun.

My hearing starts to come back. There's still the soft country western music. Somehow the pfft, pfft, pfft of the fan has grown louder and blended with an engorged whomp, whomp, whomp of blood pulsing through my heart, swelling through my veins and arteries and breaking in waves against my temples. There's a faint splishing from the left where Kim's blood drips to the floor. I can hear feeble groans that aren't so very different from the ones I was hearing just a few moments ago. In the distance are sirens.

I hear footsteps and they're coming my way, slow, cautious. The scrape of metal rings on metal bars moves toward me, down the hall as the curtains in front of the cubicles are flung open. Twice, just after that sound, I hear shots. Someone's coming. They're getting rid of survivors.

As the footsteps approach, I frantically yank at the arm, trying to pull the gun to me. The footsteps are getting closer as I wrest the gun from the rubbery, cooling hand that holds it. I wrap my palm around the grip, put a finger on the trigger and wait.

© Eric Stone